President Bush's plan to promote and finance religious charities
has been attacked by liberals as a ploy for government-funded
religion, and by conservatives as a Trojan horse for government
control over religion. Both scenarios are dubious, and both ignore
the real import of the president's agenda. The Bush plan would open
up new sources of federal dollars to faith-based providers to run
programs ranging from juvenile delinquency to job training. That
could help inner-city ministries shunned by government or
overlooked by private donors. For children at risk of slipping into
poverty or violence, that's a good step.
But making federal grants available to religious charities is the least important part of the president's initiative. Many private organizations believe that government's helping hand will become a wagging finger. They won't get involved with public money, no matter what the rules are. And even if they do, federal help would amount to just a fraction of the $74 billion that one study estimates is donated each year to churches and religious charities.
What's at stake is something much larger: the false assumption that religious belief carries no advantage over unbelief in tackling social problems. Bush is using public policy and his bully pulpit to send a message, 'Government must not discriminate against groups that are guided by their belief in God as they help their neighbors. They are community paramedics, not civic pariahs.'
Already that message is resonating. Officials at corrections departments in Michigan, New Mexico and Nebraska, mindful of the president's support of faith-based rehabilitation programs, have called Prison Fellowship to work with inmates and ex-offenders. In Sacramento, African-American and Latino churches are saying no to public money, yet mobilizing volunteers to work with families on welfare. The city has sent them over 200 clients for help in job searches and preparation. In Philadelphia, Mayor John Street has set up an office to negotiate church-state agreements and appealed to congregations to adopt failing city schools. In less than six months, they have recruited over 500 volunteers to mentor at-risk kids. Hundreds of congregations are involved in similar efforts in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. These agreements would have been unthinkable a few years ago. They are becoming routine. The failure of secular bureaucratic programs to help people effectively is part of the reason. But surely a faith-friendly White House is changing the way many people think about the importance of religion in public life.
America has a history of poverty fighters whose faith sustained profound acts of sacrifice on behalf of the most vulnerable among us. As Bush put it recently in Philadelphia, America's founding documents give us religious liberty in principle. These Americans show us religious liberty in action. We need more of this variety of religious freedom, not less.
Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
Originally aired on NPR's "All Things Considered" (07/18/01)